“Say a Prayer”: The Heartbreaking Scene in Newtown on the Night of the Shooting

Newtown vigil
Mourners gather inside the St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church at a vigil service for victims of the Sandy Hook School shooting.

Photo by Andrew Gombert-Pool/Getty Images.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sandy Hook school shooting.

NEWTOWN, CONN.—Outside Sandy Hook Wine and Liquors, walking distance from Sandy Hook Elementary, a sign that normally advertises beer specials is covered with white cardboard that bears the message “Say A Prayer.” It’s that kind of night in Newtown. This morning, 26 people were killed at the school by a lone gunman who later took his own life. Now, at 7 p.m., the road to the school is blocked and the media is here to watch the village mourn.

Numerous local churches are holding prayer vigils tonight. By the time I get to St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, the pews are full and the crowd is spilling over to the lawn. Reporters and camera crews barricade the front door, trying to look inside, keeping actual mourners out. “I left the house at 6:30; thought I’d be early. Guess I was wrong,” says one man, exiting his car and marveling at the scene.

As about 20 priests and altar boys assemble outside the front of the church, signaling that the vigil is about to begin, I head to the back and sneak in through a back door. A political body man corners a tardy priest rushing into his vestments. “Can we use this to get the governor out of here?” he asks, indicating the narrow back hallway in which we’re all standing. “I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve ever been in this church,” says the priest.

On the altar, Gov. Dannel Malloy is trying, like everyone else tonight, to summon meaning out of tragedy. “Understand that a test is just that,” he notes. “That which we rise to and answer.” Once he finishes, Sen. Richard Blumenthal takes the microphone and introduces himself. “There’s a saying: a picture is worth 1,000 words,” he says. “This picture is worth … many more than 1,000 words.”

As the politicians speak, people keep knocking on the back door, and piling in, until there’s nowhere to stand. “You can’t get in. People are standing four deep against the walls,” one man advises a newcomer. They keep coming—very young children in blazers and ties; older children in Newtown Nighthawks sweatshirts; adults in their work clothing; senior citizens wearing crosses and pins—until you couldn’t get out if you wanted to. The mass begins with a hymn, “Be Not Afraid,” and it feels like there’s no group of people anywhere else in America who need that message right now than the several hundred people in this church.

The mass is very much on point, with readings from Paul and the Book of Revelations—the part about how good triumphs over evil and Death and Hades are thrown into a pool of fire. The sermon is plain and heartfelt, and occasionally, fleetingly, funny. “We have 20 new saints today. 20 new angels,” the priest says. “I don’t know about the six adults.” The room breaks out into laughter, but it doesn’t last; tears flow freely as the priests speaks of the day’s events and recounts some of the inane questions he’s fielded from the media. ‘“What was it like inside?’ What do you think it was like inside? ‘Were people crying?’ Of course people were crying. People’s guts were ripped out. ‘Were people OK?’ Of course they weren’t OK.”

And they’re not OK. Everyone is crying, including the priest delivering the homily, including me.

“I’m one of those priests who cries a lot,” he confides to the crowd. “I’ve been crying all day. I baptized some of these children. I had the opportunity to give them First Communion in a few weeks.”

That’s the part that gets me. I break down, and don’t really recover until the end of the sermon.

“Where do you turn on a day like this?” the priest says. “You turn to God, because where else can you go?” A small woman wearing a hospital nametag dabs her eyes.

The mass continues. There are more songs about how we shouldn’t be afraid. They close with “On Eagles’ Wings,” a hymn about how God will elevate the souls of the faithful departed. It’s traditionally sung at Catholic funerals, and the woman standing next to me emits an involuntary, shocked, “Oh, God.” As the congregation sings, her daughter, who can’t be more than 15, breaks down crying. “We’ll go in and say a prayer,” her mother says, touching her cheek. “When everybody else goes out, we’ll go in.”

Outside, the reporters pounce. Some fat dope in a camelhair coat tries to corral mourners into unnecessary interviews, but has no luck. “Can you tell me a little bit about the atmosphere inside?” a TV reporter asks a priest, and is met with a pause and a death stare. “Somber. Obviously,” he says.

TV’s Dr. Oz is here, for some reason, and while my first instinct is bemusement, my second is appreciation. As far as I can tell, Dr. Oz is doing the best job of any reporter here. He’s not asking stupid questions, or jostling to secure soundbites, or taking cruddy smartphone photographs of the makeshift memorials that are all over this town. He is offering empathy and gentle conversation to people who recognize him from television and seem to be genuinely comforted by his presence. “Just wanted to say hi!” an old woman tells him. Her husband, a gruff man in a fire department sweatshirt, was one of the first responders this morning; Dr. Oz listens to his story and responds with one of his own. “On 9/11, I was at the hospital,” he says. “You can’t do anything. That’s the worst part of it. You want to help …” The conversation ends with the old woman giving Dr. Oz some sort of cross or brooch that was on her jacket. “You can use this on your program,” she says.

I am writing this from a Dunkin Donuts, where, a few minutes ago, I saw Piers Morgan and some concealed-carry asshole on TV arguing at top volume about whether people should be allowed to bring guns into schools. There are a few other reporters here, but mostly it’s full of locals—kids in their late-teens or early-twenties, some in firefighters’ and EMT gear. Seven of them sit in front of the television, in chairs arranged in a semi-circle. One of them, in a blue hooded sweatshirt, crumples up a brown paper napkin and uses it to blot his tears.